Chinatown: Reappraisal of a Hollywood Classic (Preview)
by Thomas Doherty
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes
Any invitation to revisit the luminous Chinatown—in this case, a new Blu-ray edition, with the extra feature goodies imported in toto from previous DVD editions and a choice new commentary track—is impossible to refuse. From the moment the vintage, B&W Paramount logo flashes on screen and the smoky trumpet from the woozy, three-in-the-morning score by Jerry Goldsmith rolls in, the film beckons like the fumes from an opium pipe, promising a dream of a more tantalizing, more vivid past—of 1930s Los Angeles, of 1970s Hollywood. Ignore the curtain line: Chinatown is unforgettable.
Like its referent, understood only in retrospect, the work product of the power trio of producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, and screenwriter Robert Towne, is more a state of mind than a place on the map, which is not to say that the geography is immaterial. In a European art-film reimagining of Los Angeles in 1937, dapper detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson—tan, trim, hairline intact) is suckered by a floozy into exposing the supposed philandering of her supposed husband, one Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Department of Water and Power. Jake gets the photographic goods on Mulwray canoodling with a blonde chippie, and the peekaboo shots are splashed across the tabloids. When the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, never more gorgeous or fragile) shows up, Jake realizes he has been snookered. When the cops dredge Mulwray’s body from a city reservoir, Jake also realizes more than his professional reputation may be on the line. Despite encountering official stonewalling and periodic brutality, he wades into the murky undercurrents of LA city politics, a polluted stream that leads directly to Mrs. Mulwray’s wealthy father, the rapacious Noah Cross (John Huston, suitably rascally).
The plot is intricate but not convoluted and certainly not, as in so many noirs of the classic, neo, or retro varieties, beside the point. The mystery at the heart of Chinatown is really about something, not the manic quest for a black bird or the unraveling of a bizarre conspiracy, but an all too credible power and land grab swirling around the most elemental of treasures—water. In Southern California, water is no MacGuffin; it is the life’s blood of the desert community, the elixir that makes the Golden State glitter.
Abetted by John A. Alonzo’s dazzling Panavision cinematography, Polanski scans the parched landscapes of a city with a serious drinking problem. Hitchcocklike, he tracks Jake for long stretches of wordless waiting, watching, and mulling at reservoirs, coastlines, and bone-dry river beds. The film flows smoothly, sometimes slowing to a trickle (as when Jake cools his heels in the outer office of the DPW executive, scanning the wall photos and getting on the nerves of a snippy secretary) which makes the spurts of violence all the more jarring (as during Polanski’s delicious cameo as the bow-tied gunsel in the beige suit who slices Jake’s nostril. “Next time you lose the whole thing,” he promises. “Cut it off and feed it to my goldfish”).
Swirling around the murder-and-municipal mystery is the exotic and vaguely sinister smokescreen exhaled by the word “Chinatown”—the inscrutable Orient, the mystic East, the “screwing like a Chinaman” joke that Jake can’t wait to tell, the Chinese servants lurking in the background, and the Japanese gardener tending the saltwater tide pool killing his lawn (“Bad for the glass,” he says). Above all—both grand metaphor and killing ground—looms the alien realm of the LA neighborhood itself, scene of Jake’s unspoken, traumatic backstory. Chinatown, Jake explains to Mrs. Mulwray during a moment of postcoital intimacy, is a place where the befuddled police do “as little as possible.”
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